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Tips For Staying Out Of Trouble Online

Even though the Internet has been around for over a decade I still often get asked for some basic tips for staying out of trouble online. When I first started offering this kind of advice, the Internet or "Cyberspace" law was still often ambiguous and still developing.

While over time lawyers have cleared up many of the grey areas, I still offer this general rule:

To be safe, just assume that the same laws will apply online as anywhere else. Anything that would violate the law elsewhere, will violate it online."

So in light of the development of Internet law over the last decade, here are some common-sense rules. Just stick to them, and you should avoid trouble.

They apply whether you're on your home computer surfing the web or on your office computer doing your job, and they'll help you and your family avoid unnecessary and unpleasant legal entanglements.

Copyrights. You must not use somebody else's work on your web page or in your e-mail without their permission. This admonition applies equally whether the work is written text, program code, clip art, or anything else that can be copyrighted.

For some strange reason, people commonly believe that copyright law doesn't apply to the Internet. That's wrong! Copyrights are as real online as elsewhere.

The "fair use" doctrine allows you to copy and distribute copyrighted material without permission under certain circumstances. The factors used to decide if a particular use is "fair use" include the purpose of the use (a school can copy more than a business), the amount of the original used (using a small part of the original helps) and the effect of the use on the potential market for the original.

However, be careful with "fair use." The boundaries are murky, and you can easily cross the line into copyright infringement. When in doubt, contact the author and get permission to use the material. Finally, always acknowledge the author's copyright when you copy material.

Libel and slander. When you are online, be careful about making statements that can harm a person's or company's reputation. You're as responsible for your false or misleading words online as elsewhere.

Posting disparaging remarks on a web site, or in an online forum or Internet newsgroup where potentially millions of people can read what you've posted can get you sued just as they can in a newspaper. In fact, you can cause more damage on the Internet because of the potential for widespread distribution.

So, if you post something disparaging about a person or company, just be sure that you're right. Truth is an absolute defense to a libel or slander action.

Contracts. Assume that every agreement you consummate online is enforceable. This is true whether it's a business deal done by e-mail, an order form for goods in a cyber mall, or any other type of contract or agreement. It still surprises me, but many people think that it doesn't count if you do it online. Wrong!

As a special reminder, watch your kids. When they're using your account and your password, arguably they're you. You could be stuck if they contract online in your name for a year's supply of who-knows-what from who-knows-where. At the very least, the wrong time to find out your kids are buying things by computer is when the delivery truck pulls up at your house. If you're like most of us, you probably don't need more problems.

Signatures. Use digital signatures in your business if you are doing substantial deals online. A digital signature is encrypted information, created by special software. It can be used like a real John Hancock to authenticate that a particular person assented to a particular electronic message. (That's a nasty mixture of computerese and legalese which roughly translates to, you can prove who sent the message and that he or she agreed to its terms. These two things are essential elements to a binding contract.)

Remember that many contracts are not enforceable without a signature. In case of a dispute, a court will probably find that a digital signature is as good as a "real" signature.

E-mail. Be careful about what you say in your e-mail. Don't assume that only your intended recipient will read it. Even if you need a password to access e-mail, you shouldn't assume that your e-mail is private. All too often, e-mail password protection is easily circumvented, both at home and in the office.

E-mail privacy may just be as much of an oxymoron as military intelligence. Odds are your employer is monitoring your E-mail, and E-mail is subject to civil subpoenas and criminal search warrants, under certain circumstances. And you can't easily destroy it. Even after e-mail messages are "deleted," they may still exist somewhere on your hard drive and somewhere on your e-mail server (the computer from which you retrieve your e-mail). E-mail also is more easily copied and distributed than paper documents because it's digital. Finally, consider the possibility that network and system administrators, secretaries and others can easily, illegally, or improperly read it.

And about the children...

This last one is not really a legal tip. It's more of a safety tip for your kids.

Please monitor your kids' online activities. Cyberspace is not Disney World, and even there, you wouldn't let your children talk to strangers without your supervision.

If you're one of those many parents who aren't knowledgeable about the Internet and online services, you could be letting your children go where they don't belong.

In chat rooms, they can chat with adults who may send obscene messages and try to set up real meetings-we've all heard the horror stories on the news. On the Web, they can view pornography. In newsgroups, they - let's just say it's not for kids.

I'm not suggesting that you prohibit your kids from using the Internet. That's like telling them that they can't use the public library because there may be bad people there or they may find books with adult themes.

What I'm suggesting is that you do with the Internet or an online service what you do with the library - supervise. Get that computer out of the kids' bedroom and into the family room. Read over their shoulders and see what's on that screen. So far, no computer knowledge needed.

With just a bit of computer know-how - get a computer-geek friend to help you, if need be - you can take steps to limit what your children can do online. Many services like America Online let you block where kids can go or restrict who can contact them with instant messages. Your Internet service provider (the company that hooks you up to the Internet) can tell you about software to shut off access to some parts of the Web that aren't appropriate places for children.

However, none of these measures are foolproof. If your kids love playing on the computer, chances are they are way ahead of you when it comes to working around controls you try to set. Plenty of adults who think they'll keep the kids - and their kids' friends - off the computer by setting up a secret password learn the little hackers figured it out in seconds.

It comes down to this: Don't let your children loose in cyberspace unsupervised, any more than you would leave them alone in any neighborhood that you don't know.

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